Tag Archives: Sherlock Holmes

Setting & Character

Disclaimer:  This post does not mean that I’m finally softening my long-held stance against stories about man versus nature.

Setting, however, does and should affect character–whether that individual is Judah Ben-Hur, a condemned man chained to a Roman-galley oar until he dies, or the young protagonist living in virtual realities in READY PLAYER ONE.

If your characters seem oblivious to their setting, why did you choose an unremarkable location? Instead, why not make setting an inherent part of the situation and story problem? By this, I don’t mean that you should inject a raging typhoon or catastrophe into every plot scenario, but if you strand your characters in a life raft bobbing on the Pacific Ocean, that watery surround had better have an impact on each of them in individual ways. And if you pick Boring, USA, why are you making your writer job harder than it needs to be?

Is your protagonist comfortable with the setting you’ve plunked her into, or is she a fish out of water? As soon as you make that decision, you will be directed by the option you’ve chosen into selecting or rejecting other design possibilities.

Consider the following:

If your protagonist is an intrinsic part of his setting, knows it, is prepared to cope with it, stays calm and competent in dealing with its dangers or eccentricities, etc., then that means the locale is going to recede in prominence. Your hero will meet trouble from other characters who then serve to generate complications and story problems.

On the other hand, if your protagonist is a fish out of water, then her unfamiliarity with the setting can inject danger, misunderstandings, disaster, or–conversely–comedy into your story. An unknown setting helps you present sense-of-place details to readers as your protagonist discovers them. In doing this, you can avoid awkward information-dumps that usually stall story progress.

For example, the vintage film CROCODILE DUNDEE begins in the Australian outback, where civilization is basic and the setting is full of physical dangers. Dundee, however, is an intrinsic part of the setting. He’s comfortable with poisonous snakes and vicious crocodiles. He knows how to survive in the brush. His surroundings–although hazardous–create no problems for him. The girl, by contrast, is a fish out of water. She’s in physical danger constantly because she doesn’t know the pitfalls to look for or avoid. In the second act of the film, the setting shifts to New York City and flips the circumstances for these two players. Now the girl is comfortable with her big-city backdrop and wise to its ways, but Dundee has become the fish out of water. His initial bewilderment and quirky solutions inject comedy into the story. And, I might add, he adapts very quickly.

Let’s pick a scenario of elderly woman suffering from dementia that wanders away from home.

The setting of such a story immediately dictates character actions and therefore guides the plot events to come.

For example, if this story takes place in the summer in a harsh desert climate miles from the nearest town, then the desert-savvy protagonist will not be able to seek police or county sheriff assistance. The protagonist will be largely on his own. He’ll know to start a search at dawn before temperatures exceed one-hundred degrees, to seek Granny’s tracks in the sand and follow them through the brush, to carry plenty of water and a weapon in case he encounters rattlesnakes or rabid wildlife, and be conscious of the necessity to find Granny before the intense noonday heat gives her sunstroke or she becomes dangerously dehydrated. Unless you’re trying to build suspense, it’s unnecessary to lavish endless details of the search and throw snakes, wild pigs, and fire ants at the protagonist. Instead, summarize the search and let the story action center instead on conflict between the protagonist and a wild-eyed, distraught, and possibly injured Granny who won’t cooperate as he tries to get her home.

If Granny has wandered away in a crime-riddled metropolis, depending on the customary missing-persons procedure, the protagonist will notify authorities to issue a silver alert and then set out on a house-to-house search through the neighborhoods closest to where Granny lives. Maybe–if it’s a gated community–an email alert will be sent to everyone and Granny’s photo will be posted on light poles. Then it’s a matter of getting in the car to check along major arterial roads or bus routes, pausing at strip shopping centers to ask store owners if they’ve seen an elderly woman trudging along, and looking in alleys while always hoping he won’t find Granny lying unconscious from a mugging behind a Dumpster. Maybe–if Granny hasn’t dropped her cell phone–the hero can ask authorities to track her SIM card. Or, the protagonist will be entirely dependent on the police to find her and will instead go to work, checking search progress periodically via his cell phone. Instead of having the protagonist facing down would-be muggers or being car-jacked in a misguided effort to generate plot from a setting the character is knowledgeable about, why not focus the plot on his conflict with authorities who may require him to wait twenty-four hours before they’ll take action?

When it comes to how setting affects character design, another factor can come through the story person’s background. Characters are usually shaped by the places where they grew up. Was a sidekick kept isolated from others, home schooled, and spent his childhood in a hippie commune in a remote rural area without cellular phone service or satellite dishes or internet?

Even if that past has no connection to your plot, such factors as these will affect the sidekick’s personality, behavior, and reactions. He may be very self-reliant, independent, skilled, and resourceful. He may feel uneasy in social situations, avoid parties or crowds of people, and be a difficult co-worker. At the other extreme, he might actively seek city life and parties, binge-watch Netflix, own every electronic gadget on the market, and be a profligate spender to compensate for all the things he thinks he missed while growing up.

Can setting, in turn, be shaped by characters? Not, perhaps, as directly as how setting affects individuals, but reader perception of a locale can be colored by character perspective, personality, and attitude. Consider Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson on a train headed away from London to some remote corner of England. Watson gazes out the window at green meadows, grazing sheep, and tidy cottages with his usual optimistic, upbeat sentimentality. He comments how good it is to see such dear old homesteads. Holmes, huddled in his greatcoat and uninterested in the passing view, replies that more murders are committed in isolated farmhouses than in the most crowded, squalid sectors of the city.

(That’s one way to shut down a happy conversation.)

 

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Writing with Flair

Commercial genre fiction is not for the timid, or the mousey, or the quiet, retiring individual.

As a writer, you can be any or all of those things in real life, but when you put your fingertips on the keyboard, you should channel whatever inner flamboyance and verve you possess. Feed it right into your characters.

Your characters need to leap off the page. They need to be sharp, vivid, bold, exaggerated, and unpredictable.

“But I’m not any of those things,” you may be protesting. “That’s not who I am. How do I identify with that kind of artificial, clownish character?”

Ah … perhaps the key word here is “artificial.”

When did it become the norm to believe our characters are anything BUT artificial constructions?

The so-called “realistic” character is too often an excuse to hide behind when we lack the nerve to write anything that’s flamboyant.

When I sit down to read fiction, I don’t want characters that are modeled closely on real life. Real life is boring, mundane, filled with endless banal tasks, the drudgery of chores, and meaningless small talk. I chat with my next-door neighbors maybe twice a year while picking up the newspaper or rolling out the garbage Polycart. The topic is never earth-shattering: the new recycle pickup schedule, or can I recommend a plumber … that sort of thing. Not the stuff of fiction!

When I was a child, one of my favorite cartoon characters was Snaggletooth. He was some kind of cat or tiger–which is probably why I gravitated to him–and his main distinguishing tag was when he would stand on one foot, poised in the direction he was about to run, and he would announce grandly: “Exit stage left!” or “Exit stage right!”

For all I know, that cartoon may have taught me right from left. I don’t remember anything else about the character except those vivid departures. Yet, despite the murky mush of childhood memories, Snaggletooth has never been forgotten.

How does one of your characters enter the story? How does she exit a scene? What does she do while she’s stage centered on the page, involved in the story’s action?

Is she making ANY impression on readers?

If not, why not?

One of my favorite old-movie actresses is Bette Davis. You may or may not have seen any of her films, but you’ve probably heard of her.

Even in her earliest films, when she was just a studio player and miscast in little roles of flighty society girls, she carried a presence with her. She knew how to walk, how to carry herself, how to move about so that she held the audience’s eye. That’s stagecraft, and she learned her acting from the stage before she ever went to Hollywood.

All actors of that era were trained to do that. They weren’t trying to be natural or realistic. They were driving the story action forward and doing their best to make you remember them.

One of my favorite film entrances of a character is in the William Wyler film, THE LETTER, based on a short story by Somerset Maugham. The audience is shown the moonlight shining down on a peaceful rubber plantation. All is quiet. The workers are sleeping in hammocks under thatched sheds. Then a pistol shot rings out. A man bursts from the bungalow and staggers down the porch steps. Bette Davis follows him.

She’s wearing an evening gown. She holds a pistol in one hand. Her arm is extended and rigid. She fires into his back. And fires again, emptying the revolver into his dying body. As she shoots, she descends a porch step, then another, until she’s standing over him.

The camera zooms in on her face. She’s intent, cold-blooded, lethal. There’s no hesitation in her, no fear, no regret. She knows exactly what she’s just done, and it was precisely what she intended to do. She has shot this man down the way I might destroy a rabid dog.

Then, as the plantation workers wake up and run toward her in alarm, the predator in Bette vanishes. She pulls on a mask of teary weakness and begins to lie about what just happened and why.

But the audience has seen the truth and can settle in to watch what she does next in trying to trick the police and the prosecutors.

“Realistic?” Not at all. Vivid and effective? You bet!

A vivid character doesn’t have to possess superhuman powers in order to compel reader attention.

Just ask Mr. Dickens. He created some of the most memorable characters still in print, and they have been in print a mighty long time.

Is Ebeneezer Scrooge “realistic” or drawn closely from real life?

No!

He’s such an exaggeration of miserly behavior that his name has been absorbed into the English language as a label for a tight-fisted, grouchy individual who values money over human kindness.

Was Edgar Allen Poe trying to share the mundane, everyday details of ordinary human existence in his stories?

No!

Instead, we have a madman creeping through a possessed house in “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Would Sherlock Holmes continue to fascinate us were he more ordinary?

No!

This man has extraordinary powers of observation. He keeps his pipe tobacco in a Persian slipper on the mantel. From time to time, he celebrates his patriotism for his queen by firing bullets into the wall in the shape of her initials.

[If I want to be realistic about Holmes, I would be thinking about his landlady and asking myself why didn’t she throw him out. But who cares about realism? We LOVE Holmes just as he is, flaws, quirks, peculiarities, and all.]

Even the current book du jour–THE BOOK THIEF–which is pretty darn mainstream and literary–has vivid characters. Death is its narrator and the book features a little girl who is struggling to learn to read while stealing books ordered burned by the Nazis. A realistic character wouldn’t be defying a Nazi edict. She would be staying home, helping with the laundry, and doing exactly as she was told.

Characters have to be exaggerated in order to ignite readers’ imaginations.

Whether it’s a little boy who mysteriously eludes destruction by the evil Voldemort, or the three musketeers cheerfully taking on Cardinal Richelieu’s guards despite being outnumbered, or Eliza Bennett refusing to dance with the handsome and fantastically wealthy Mr. Darcy … these characters capture us and enchant us because they are boldly drawn and anything but realistic.

The desire to avoid the bold, seemingly unnatural character is understandable. It’s also fatal to a story’s success.

Quiet nonentities go flat on the page. They scan as B-O-R-I-N-G. They’re too careful, too shy, too prudent to move the story forward. This type would be the hobbit that stays home, unlike Bilbo Baggins.

I happen to be an introvert. Over the years, I have forced myself to be able to mingle in a crowd, to socialize, to lecture, and to interact, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. At the end of such occasions, I’m usually drained. My first instinct, whenever I’m invited to any public function, is to refuse the invitation.

Beyond that, in real life, I avoid confrontations. I don’t like to get into arguments. I don’t like to witness conflict of any kind. Ugly or angry behavior stresses me.

That’s my real nature.

But when I write, I recognize that my characters are NOT me. They cannot live or survive in their story world if they are shy, avoid social interaction, or elude conflict.

Their functions and responsibilities as fictional characters are far different from mine because I am a real person in a real world.

The character must not be built or evaluated on a real-world model.

The character must instead fit a fictional model and do what the story requires of him.

Stories–particularly genre fiction–are not realistic. They are entertainment, and they are structured in certain ways to fulfill that function.

That’s why fictional characters need to be exaggerated into creatures that are weird or wild or zany or colorful or predatory or just more darned courageous than anyone else.

They aren’t–and never will be–real.

They’re not–and shouldn’t be–intended to be real.

Make them as bold as you can, and as vivid as you dare.

And then push them a little farther out there … way past your comfort zone.

Just ask Janet Evanovich, who creates old ladies who carry Glocks strapped to their walkers and monkeys that escape research laboratories wearing little hats made from aluminum foil.

Silly? You bet.

And she laughs all the way to the bank.

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Fascinate Me: The Intriguing Character

When I began my writing training, my characters weren’t much more than a name, hair color, and a series of tasks I wanted them to attempt. Sometimes I jotted down a list of dialogue points I wanted them to make in scenes. Without my list, I often got sidetracked and my scenes didn’t always come out the way I wanted.

Since then, I’ve learned there’s a lot more to characterization than that. What makes us love a certain character and remain indifferent to another? What makes one character live beyond the story he appears in, while others fade from memory the moment we shut the book? Why are some characters intriguing and others dull?

An intriguing character doesn’t have to be the good guy.

Count ’em on your fingers … Hannibal Lecter, the Joker, Long John Silver, Captain Hook, Captain Bly, Bill Sikes, Sauron, Mrs. Danvers, Count Dracula, and Cruella de Vil … to name only a few memorable villains. (Yes, I left out Moriarty and Voldemort on purpose.) No doubt you can come up with many, many more, and there are lists of fictional villains on the Internet to jog your memory.

Let’s take Treasure Island’s Long John Silver as an example. He’s a ruthless, black-hearted pirate who signs on as ship’s cook. During the voyage, he deliberately befriends the young boy Jim, taking advantage of Jim’s naivete and trusting nature. He serves as a confidant and mentor to Jim, only to betray the boy later. Worst of all, when his true self is revealed, he expects Jim to stick with him and also turn on the others. Jim, of course, won’t do that. Silver reproaches the boy, saying plaintively, “I thought you and me was friends.”

Our fascination with Silver is less about his piracy and more about the psychological damage he’s wreaking.

Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is a nasty piece of work. She hates the new Mrs. de Winter from the start and does her best to sabotage the young bride’s self-confidence, marriage, and chances of social success. Mrs. Danvers is the housekeeper, supposed to serve and assist. Instead, she despises Mrs. de Winter and preys on every weakness, even compelling the girl to almost commit suicide. Finally, when she can’t break the girl, Mrs. Danvers burns down the house.

If we look only at Mrs. Danvers’s cruel actions, we have a one-dimensional villain. It’s not until we examine her motivation that we can see her complexity. She loved the first Mrs. de Winter, a beautiful, vivid woman named Rebecca. She was Rebecca’s nurse and remained a servant to her–becoming housekeeper–even after Rebecca married. Mrs. Danvers can’t and won’t accept Rebecca’s death. Mrs. Danvers lays out Rebecca’s clothes each day, has preserved her room exactly as it was, has forced the household to continue doing everything the way Rebecca preferred. Mrs. Danvers has been warped by her grief. If she accepts the second Mrs. de Winter (who’s never named in the book), then she’ll have to accept Rebecca’s death. Mrs. Danvers is far too cruel and sick to evoke our compassion, but she’s anything but ordinary.

Not all intriguing characters are villains.

Consider Zorro, Superman, Batman, James Bond, Tarzan, Rhett Butler, and Sherlock Holmes–to name only a few.

What makes these fictional individuals so compelling?

I found the answer in Robert McKee’s book, Story, where he discusses a writing technique dealing with “true character.” McKee says that audiences are fascinated by characters whose true nature is in contrast to their outward appearance or behavior. At any moment, the mask may drop and we glimpse the real individual inside.

Zorro is literally masked. By day, he hides behind the mild persona of Don Diego. Batman is a wealthy businessman who dons the cowl to fight crime. Superman and Tarzan are also double-identity heroes. James Bond doesn’t wear a mask or costume, but we have a heroic super-spy capable of killing, jumping from airplanes, and blowing up facilities who conceals his violent abilities inside a tuxedo and suave demeanor. Each time we watch Bond sauntering through a glitzy casino with a beautiful woman on his arm, we’re anticipating the moment when the action hero will be revealed. Rhett Butler is not a crime fighter, but we never know when he will drop his mocking cynicism for kindness and generosity. Sherlock Holmes’s brilliant mind and deductive abilities are jeopardized by his cocaine addiction. We fear he will break apart, never to be mended by Dr. Watson.

In designing your characters, strive for a contrast between the surface and the truth. Look at the why behind their actions and make those motivations work. If you can create a complex character, chances are you’ll have a compelling character.

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Where Am I?

“It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” –Sherlock Holmes in “The Copper Beeches” by Arthur Conan Doyle

The creator of Sherlock Holmes understood the value of setting and how it can contribute to a story’s success. Just as Holmes explains to Watson about how an isolated setting can contribute to crime, so does a writer need to remember how any setting can be utilized to enhance plot and characters if necessary.

So where are you locating your story? Why are you putting your plot and characters in that place? Have you made conscious decisions to do so, or does the setting seem unimportant to you?

When dealing with your story’s location, you should determine a couple of things from the outset:

1) is setting dominant or in the background?

2) what genre are you writing?

Dominant or Background?

Some stories feature settings so vivid and vital to the plot that the locale becomes a character itself. Such settings require a rich, vivid depiction. This is accomplished less through static long paragraphs of description and more through quick insertions of specific details into the action. The props the characters handle, the afternoon rain showers they walk through, the silent forest of dead trees snagging the heroine’s clothing as she tries to run … these can all generate the kind of imagery that sticks in your reader’s imagination.

However, some stories don’t require a prominent location. In this kind of fiction, the setting is simply diminished to a minor role. For example, the Battle of Waterloo was historically significant, but if it has little bearing on your story, then a few brief sentences are enough. Perhaps the viewpoint character hears the distant boom of canon fire and wonders when the battle will end, but she’s more concerned with convincing her spinster sister to let her attend the ball that night so she can dance with Major Honeycutt.

Which Genre?

Each fiction genre carries certain arcane elements that are expected by readers. For example, a traditional mystery story is supposed to offer a murder or serious crime, a number of suspects with strong motivations but flimsy alibis, and a sleuth.

That being said, each genre also tends to affect how dominant a setting may be. The mystery story is less concerned with the external environment than it is with the location and placement of the body and the discovery of clues. Is it really going to matter if the murder occurs in Jamaica? Could it have happened just as easily in Dorset, England? If the answer’s yes, the setting will fade into the background.

Recently I reread AND THEN THERE WERE NONE by Agatha Christie. This clever variation on the locked-room puzzle is set on a small island. The island itself doesn’t matter. All that’s important is that the characters be cut off from outside assistance. They could have been dropped in the middle of a desert, or on a small asteroid. The effect would be the same.

Some of you may be saying, But what about Sherlock Holmes? His rooms at 221B Baker Street? His slipper of tobacco? His chemistry set?

Holmes’s apartment is a character in the stories. It’s as beloved as Holmes and Watson. But the crimes occur elsewhere. Think of the settings in Robert B. Parker’s novels. Spenser solves crimes in Boston. The city is depicted, but not in a dominant way. It’s a backdrop, and the emphasis is placed on the victims and suspects. On the other hand, in Dick Francis’s mystery novel SMOKESCREEN, the South African setting is important to the plot. There’s a harrowing chapter where the protagonist is trapped in a car in the African bush and left to die.

Genres such as fantasy or science fiction often prominently feature settings. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is depicted in a way that has captured readers’ imaginations for generation after generation. Think also of Brian Jacques’s REDWALL series, with mouse monks defending the little abbey from villainous rats, weasels, and stoats. And of course there’s Frank Herbert’s DUNE, a novel featuring a planet so vivid it almost steals the story away from the characters. Could Paul Atreides have met the sandworms on just any old planet? No. Dune is a brilliantly designed setting–with every specific detail fitting plausibly and consistently into a cohesive whole, right down to environmental suits that recycle your perspiration and tears into drinking water.


When writing setting, remember to first determine how much prominence it will have and then always use the most precise, specific details you can to illustrate it. Employ the five physical senses as well, where appropriate, to help bring the place alive.

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